Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Life in a religious community can hold a real fascination for people, especially people who aren’t familiar with such places. They’re a bit mysterious and some are quite closed off. And when a group of disparate people live in the same community, there’s all sorts of potential for conflict. So it’s little wonder that places such as monasteries and convents can be so effective as settings for crime fiction. To get a sense of what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight today on Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body, the first of her Inspector C.D. Sloan series.
Early one morning at the Convent of St. Anselm, Sister Mary St. Gertrude is going about her duty of waking the others, including the Mother Superior, the other Sisters, the novices and the postulants. She finds the room of Sister Mary St. Anne empty and at first, she thinks that Sister Anne has simply gotten up extra early, but when she doesn’t turn up, a search is made for her. Her body is discovered at the bottom of the stairs to the convent’s basement so reluctantly, it’s decided to call in the police.
Berebury Police Inspector C.D. Sloan and his assistant Constable William Crosby take the case and begin their investigation. It’s soon very clear that Sister Anne was murdered, as opposed to dying from an accidental fall. What’s more, the evidence shows that she was not killed in the basement; her body was moved there later.
Following the most obvious possibility, Sloan and Crosby interview everyone in the convent to find out where each one was and when each one last saw the victim. But it doesn’t seem likely that anyone in the convent killed Sister Anne. For one thing, she hadn’t made any enemies there. For another, there’s very little real privacy in this convent. It would have been difficult for any of the other nuns to kill Sister Anne without being seen. And yet, she’s left what turns out to be a considerable amount of money to the convent…
There are also possibilities among the members of Sister Anne’s family of origin. She’s the daughter of a wealthy family that owns a successful manufacturing company. If she’d lived, she’d have had a major share of the company holdings and could determine company decisions. And more than one person would rather that not happen. What’s more, Sister Anne’s mother has disowned her and has nothing but bitterness and contempt at her choice of the religious life.
And then there’s the nearby Agricultural Institute. On Guy Fawkes Day, some of the students celebrate with a traditional guy-burning. This time, though, the guy is wearing a nun’s habit and what turn out to be Sister Anne’s spectacles. So Sloan and Crosby have to consider the students who were responsible for the guy.
Sloan and Crosby get closer to the truth about Sister Anne’s death, only to be faced with another murder. This second victim knew more than was safe to know, and the detectives have to move quickly to ensure that no-one else is killed. In the end, they find out who killed both victims, and trace the murders to an event in the past.
In many ways, this is a traditional whodunit. There’s a cast of suspects, there are some likely motives, and there are clues. There’s also a dose of ‘howdunit’ about the novel. How did the habit and glasses get to the Institute? And why do at least two Sisters say that Sister Anne was last seen at Vespers on the night of her death, when forensic evidence shows that she was killed just after dinner – a difference of nearly two hours? If the killer isn’t a nun, how did the killer get into the convent without being seen? Readers who enjoy intellectual puzzlers will be pleased at the clues, questions and ‘red herrings’ Aird provides.
This is also a traditional mystery in that it doesn’t focus heavily on the characters, although we do get to know some things about some of the nuns (more on that shortly). We don’t learn much about Sloan or Crosby, for instance, and this means that readers who are tired of melancholic, demon-haunted cops with terrible pasts will be pleased. On the other hand, readers who prefer character-driven novels where relationships are explored in depth will be disappointed.
Another important element in this novel is its convent setting. We get an ‘inside look’ at life at a convent of the era (the book was published in 1966), with its traditions, rituals, and daily customs. Convents and other religious institutions have come under a great deal of criticism in the last decades for all kinds of abuses, some of them horrific. But the Convent of St. Anselm is not portrayed that way. The nuns are not portrayed as perfect or all-knowing, but they are portrayed in a positive light, as humans who are trying to live the life they believe God has called them to live. Even when Sloan interviews a former nun who’s left the religious life, he doesn’t get a sense of bitterness or hatred. As Sloan and Crosby look into the background of some of the nuns, we also get a sense of what these women might have been like before they joined the order, and what might have caused them to do so.
Neither Sloan nor Crosby has been in a convent before, and the Sisters are certainly not accustomed to dealing with a police investigation. So there’s an element in the novel of mutual mistrust, at least at first. Gradually that changes as each ‘side’ gets to know the other a little.
There isn’t a strong element of violence in the story, so readers who prefer to avoid brutality will be pleased. That said though, this isn’t exactly a happy, light story. The Sisters have all been deeply shaken by the death of one of their own, especially when the possibility arises that another one of their own could be responsible. And when we learn the truth about what happened, it solves the mystery but doesn’t make things all right again. Still, you couldn’t call this a bleak novel either. There’s a sense that life will go on.
The Religious Body is a traditional kind of detective story that offers an inside look at life in a mid-1960s convent. The setting and atmosphere are quite distinctive and the convent building itself is a very effective setting. The motive for the murders makes sense, and I didn’t feel (but feel free to differ with me if you do) that I had to give up too much disbelief. But what’s your view? Have you read The Religious Body? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 13 January/Tuesday 14 January – The Case of the Missing Books – Ian Sansom
Monday 20 January/Tuesday 21 January – The Boy in the Suitcase – Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis.
Monday 27 January /Tuesday 28 January – The Guards – Ken Bruen